KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s Generation Z has grown up in a 17-year window shadowed by warfare and a heavy international presence, but now faces an uncertain future and the possibility of stark change.
Peace talks between the United States and Taliban are ramping up, which could see the hardline group take on a formal role in government, while U.S. President Donald Trump is reported to be mulling cutting the number of U.S. troops, which peaked at 100,000 in the early 2010s and is now at about 14,000.
No one knows what form a new government may take or how much control the Taliban might have under any deal, but for young people who were babies when the Taliban were driven from power by a U.S.-led campaign in 2001, the prospect of peace with the hardline Islamists brings a daunting mix of hope and fear.
For villagers in rural Afghanistan, where traditional ways have always counted for more than central government law, life may not change much.
But for the young of Kabul and other cities, there is much to lose, in particular the freedoms restored after the Taliban were ousted - from playing music, to modelling and adopting trendy haircuts - which they’ve grown up with.
“The thing I’m most worried about is that if they return, I’ll not be able to continue playing music,” said Maram Atayee, a 16-year-old pianist who attends music school in Kabul.
“It will be great if the government and the Taliban reach a peace deal. At that time there should be access to music for everyone and women’s rights must be protected.”
When the Taliban were last in power, they gained global notoriety for a harsh regime that forced women and girls to stay at home, restricted music and sports and imposed brutal punishment on infractions of a hardline version of Islamic law.
More recently, they have adopted a more moderate tone, including pledges on rights for women and girls’ education, appeals for support from foreign aid groups and promises to maintain good international relations.
While huge doubts remain, the peace talks have given young people a sense of hope.
“I am optimistic about the Taliban joining the peace process,” said Hussain, 19, who like many young Afghans grew up in neighbouring Iran where millions have taken refuge from war. He now works as a hairdresser in Kabul.
“It will be an end to the war and conflicts in our country. I want the Taliban to change their policy and not behave like before.”
Afghanistan has a strikingly young population, with more than 60 percent of its 35 million people under the age of 25, and half under the age of 15, according to the U.N. population agency.
Like young people everywhere, Afghanistan’s urban youth rely on technology for their window on global trends and culture, and face huge problems finding permanent, stable work.
They have also had to deal with near-daily violence and a broken economy that cannot provide jobs for the 400,000 or so new entrants to the workforce every year.
Hundreds of thousands have migrated in the years since 2014, when most foreign forces left. Many have risked dangerous journeys in search of new homes in countries like Turkey, or in Europe or further afield.
For some of those who have remained, there is now hope that peace will bring opportunities.
Nineteen-year-old Omar, who works at a shop in Kabul that sells clothes imported from Turkey, has been learning English since he was six with the hope of travelling. He keeps a book filled with photos of places he wants to visit – the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, New York City.
Still, he says, he wants to live in Afghanistan and longs for an end to the violence.
“If there’s peace it would be easier, there’s lots of rich guys and they’re not investing because they’re scared for their lives, that there will be a bomb that will destroy what they’ve done.”
He admires the progress made by China, whose presence in Afghanistan pales in comparison with that of other powers, but whose investment is increasing: “They have peace, they are hard workers.”
But he feels apprehensive about the prospect of the U.S. military leaving.
“What President Trump said about Afghanistan was totally wrong, we need help,” he said.
Sultan Qasim Sayeedi, an 18-year-old model sports a hairstyle with shaven sides and a slicked back front called a “sinpogh”, which he says turns heads on Kabul’s streets.
He scours Facebook, YouTube and Instagram to learn about fashion and modelling and draws inspiration from his favourite models, including Saudi Arabia’s Omar Borkan, and Canadian popstar Justin Bieber.
“We’re afraid that if the Taliban come then we will not be able to hold our shows,” he said.
Despite that wariness, Sultan says it’s time the fighting ended.
“If American troops will go peace will come, we want peace,” he said.
Maryam Ghulami, a 20-year-old living in the western province of Herat, says her generation will bring change that her parents never could.
She is learning graphic design and computer coding at an online academy and likes to hone her skills with YouTube tutorials.
While she believes Afghanistan faces many problems - a slow and unreliable internet connection, for a start - she has faith that her generation can bring change.
“The new generation can change Afghanistan with knowledge, with technology,” she said.
Editing by James Mackenzie, Robert Birsel